Two-Party Bickering | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Two-Party Bickering

State lawmakers have a little more than a month left in this legislative session, and they are getting down to business on the most important item on their agenda: Passing a budget. Advocates, educators and concerned citizens are rallying for their piece of the budgetary pie, and legislators are hanging up over the usuals—Medicaid and education—but for the first time, they are splitting over these issues in a major way along party lines.

The move toward two-party politics in Mississippi was inevitable, says Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. It was set up by a number of things, he says, including the latest congressional redistricting, which was handled by Republicans, the last legislative redistricting, handled by the Democratic-controlled house, and a protracted special session on tort reform, which clearly split along party lines because Republicans are funded by big companies that don't want to have to pay out large settlements and Democrats are funded by the lawyers who sue these big companies.

"You had situations where Democrats had to put on Democratic jerseys and Republicans had to put on Republican jerseys," said Wiseman, a political science professor. Crowning it all was "Amy Tuck switching to the Republican Party and the election of Haley Barbour."

If, Wiseman says, Tuck and Barbour thought they had a mandate to do "Republican things," the House is clearly showing them that it is not having it.

Some lawmakers agree that they are playing party politics for reasons that range from the fact that there are now more Republicans, particularly in the two highest offices, to the fact that that's what a political party does: push its own agenda. They say they expect nasty clashes over major issues and could even pass a budget that Mississippians ultimately will not tolerate.

"We don't need two-party politics in Mississippi," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. "We have a lot of people that we need to take care of in this state."

Lawmakers are splitting along party lines over the two most problematic issues on most state budgets—Medicaid and education. The House, generally more education-minded, proposed a budget that funded secondary education at $160 million more than the Senate, which has not passed its own budget, but is leaning more toward the governor's proposal, which was less generous to secondary education, not fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Barbour wants to put more money into higher education, funding community and junior colleges and universities at nearly $100 million.

Hell-bent on eliminating the state's $709 million deficit in two years, Barbour has publicly praised the Senate whenever it has passed parts of his proposed budget.

Educators converged on the Legislature last month to press their case. Community college instructors want a raise, and State Superintendent of Education Henry Johnson wants early full funding for grades K-12.

And on education, Democrats have a solid foundation. Polls indicate that voters would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund education.

Rep. Phillip West, D-Natchez, and chairman of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, said he hopes that some lawmakers will have a "change of attitude" because there are some "core issues" on which Democrats stand firm. "We think public education takes priority over everything else," he said, "and we're going to try to make sure it gets fully funded."

The House, with its Democratic majority, also tends to be more generous with money for the poor, disabled and elderly. For instance, Senate Bill 2436 proposes to move 65,000 Mississippians currently on Medicaid and Medicare over to Medicare. House Bill 1434 would make Medicaid available to those 65,000 Mississippians if they needed it.

Medicare is a federal insurance program for the elderly and disabled. Medicaid is a federal/state program for the elderly, poor and disabled. Some people are dual-eligible, which means they receive both. Advocates for the poor say that the plan to move people over solely to Medicare would mean that thousands would not be adequately covered.

On health and social services issues that involve "helping people to be whole and to maybe even advance in this world," Wiseman said, "the House can take the moral high ground. Who could deny people access to health care?"

The problem is that no matter how sympathetic representatives are to their constituents, the pie is only so big, and many Republican lawmakers have been as adamant as Barbour about not raising the taxes it would take to bake another one. Lawmakers have already defeated Mississippi Optional Sales Tax, which would have given cities and counties a chance to let voters decide if they wanted to fund specific projects.

The questions is: Will Democrats suggest a tax increase if it is the only way to fund everything that needs to be funded and at the most effective level?

"I don't expect them to bring it up this session," Wiseman said, "but if they did, they could make a good case."

Some Democrats said voters themselves might force a tax increase. Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Hinds, said surrounding states that have elected Republican governors were singing the same no-tax-hike song that Barbour was—until it was time to run their governments, and then they back-pedaled.

"That rhetoric sounds good on the campaign trail," said Frazier. "But when it comes time to cut services that people need, you will hear from constituents."

Mississippi legislators are already hearing from theirs, Frazier stated, which makes this process that much more difficult.

"This is the toughest one I've seen," said Frazier, who was first elected in 1980. "But we will pass a budget."

If voters are not satisfied with that budget, lawmakers may well find themselves in a special session, Frazier said, where they will have to come up with a budget that will work. The other option is to look at revenues, which are up $9 million over projections, Frazier explained. "That would be a way to get some money out there."

House Democrats also have shot down the Republican pet issues of tort reform and voter ID.

Said Wiseman: "People have been clamoring for two-party politics in Mississippi. Well, here it is."
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